I wrote this as the real world, the one available to our everyday apprehension, disappeared. Then the pandemic came I searched for an image, bur could nor come up with the appropriate one. You can supply your own. More–three-acts to follow. But we already know the ending, don’t we?
Worlds Collide: A Play in Four Acts
Historical Note: Pelagius, a heretical Christian theologian of the 4thand 5thcenturies A.D., is back in the news, courtesy of Pope Francis, who recently called Donald Trump a “self-absorbed Promethean neo-Pelagian,” and Josh Hawley, the evangelical Protestant senator (R-MO) who incited the Trump insurrection and yet had denounced the Pelagian heresy—the idea that self-realization is more important than salvation—two years earlier. Christianity itself is an issue of our time, partly because white evangelicals are such ardent supporters of Trump. Believers and non-believers alike keep asking, How can they keep faith with someone as sinful and unrepentant?
This play is my provisional answer. I’ve brought Pelagius back to life, but not as a one-man show. His contemporaries in Rome of the late 4thcentury included Augustine of Hippo and Jerome, both of them intellectual architects of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, and Marcellinus Ammianus, a famous Stoic, historian, and former commander of a Roman legion. I put them in dialogue to see what would happen.
The meeting of these minds is my creation, a fiction, but the four main characters were, in fact, contemporaries who knew and loved Rome in the twilight of the Empire. They probably met, although not under the circumstances I depict. They surely knew each other’s written work. Jerome and Augustine later became saints, “founding fathers” of the Roman Catholic Church. But this church was still something of a scandal—more a start-up than a going concern—in the 4thcentury A.D. Nobody knew it would last because nobody could know what its constituents would end up believing.
Augustinewas a former whoremonger and Manichean, a dedicated heathen like almost everybody else in the 390s. He was an outlander who came from the provincial margins of the Roman Empire. In this sense, he was like the Visigoths and other starving refugees from the North—from what we now call Europe—who were already gathering on the Tiber River, waiting for it to freeze so they could cross over and pillage Rome.
Jerome was quite learned, more Stoic than Christian in that respect—the early Church was anything but literate—and by 399 he had become the patron of wealthy clients, Roman citizens, who believed that the end of days was upon them and who bet, accordingly, on his prophecies by becoming hermits, monks, and other kinds of nominally Christian ascetics.
Pelagius, like Augustine an outlander down bone deep and for good—he was from Britain, the farthest outpost of the Empire, and the most unruly—was forgotten by the Church Fathers, including Jerome and Augustine, who fought his ideas about free will because they seemed inconsistent with the notion of original sin, that is, Adam’s “betrayal” of God’s trust. Pelagius thought that we could choose our origins, that we weren’t necessarily bound by the Adamic transgression; maybe, he suggested, we were actually liberated as a result, by our expulsion from Eden. You could say he was a post-modernist Protestant long before modernity ever encroached on anyone’s consciousness. Indeed, as I said, Pope Francis recently referred to Donald Trump as a “self-absorbed Promethean neo-Pelagian.”
Marcellinus Ammianuswas perhaps the most famous and influential of the Stoics who shaped the Hellenic culture of the 4thcentury A.D. with their histories of the Roman Empire. He knew Augustine, he knew Jerome’s clients, he read Pelagius, and he knew his world was ending.
Dramatis Personae in order of appearance, with casting suggestions from among actors and real life personalities:
Marcellinus Ammianus, a former commander of a Roman legion in Gaul, now 36 volumes into a history of the Empire; tall and powerfully built, though aged, he always looks somewhat out of place, out of phase: he’s trying to catch up with the times. He hunches his shoulders like old men do, but he seems to tower over the others as he paces. [Frank Langella, Christopher Plummer, Liam Neeson, Colin Powell]
Jerome,a zealous Christian polemicist, author of commentaries on and translations of both Old and New Testaments, now mostly an adviser to wealthy women who want to take vows of chastity and to wealthy men who want to become monks or hermits; he’s nervous, intense, anxious, not of this world because his eyes are on the next. [Paul Giamatti, John Malkovich, Chris Hedges]
Augustine of Hippo and Carthage in what we now call Northern Africa, a former libertine, now a bishop in the new, barely articulate Christian Church, author of “The Confessions,” the first memoir ever; he’s intense, wiry, physical, somehow always on the verge of dancing; his gestural repertoire is modern, fit for a Broadway musical. [Chris Rock, Jeremy Renner, Barack Obama]
Pelagius, the heretic, born in Ireland, he’s taller than Marcellinus, but he slumps and slouches: even more than Jerome, he’s in constant retreat from the world as it exists, and he lives in that place no one else can, except God, where ideas have the same effect as actions. [Ethan Hawke, Jeff Daniels, Ben Affleck, Keanu Reeves, John Rawls]
Servants,who always come and go in the background, often mumbling, sometimes speaking. Mary andPetergradually emerge as crucial figures, a kind of chorus.
[They need to be nobodies with charismatic presence—if they’re known quantities, the effect is lost.]
[It is 399 A.D., Rome, at the palatial home of Marcellinus Ammianus. The men have come together at his invitation. He wants to know what fuels this new social movement called Christianity—or rather, what rhetorical resources it has marshaled, how it has succeeded.
INT. We open with Ammianus, pacing thoughtfully, not fretfully, stage front, as servants come and go in the background. He turns toward the motion, then back to the audience.]
MA: I wonder why I care about this. Why would you? It can’t last, this cult, these Christians, these. . . animals. They’re deluded. They might as well be pigs, rooting about in the [he waves backward, toward the motion of servants]. . . . They might as well be slaves. They areslaves. But this Jerome, he writes as much as I do, and now he advises noble women? The wives of my friends, they take vows of chastity, give away their jewelry. And their husbands become monks! Paulinus of Nola vows not to fuck anybody anymore, not even his wife. Why?
But Paulinus, he’s a personal friend of mine, we dine together, he admires this Augustine, these confessions of his . . . they’re cheap, they’re disgusting . . . but he writes in Latin, he is a learned man who pretends to be something else. He’s an officer of this ecclesia, this church. I read these confessions, and I think, I know this man. [He stops pacing] But I don’t want to. Why would I?
I do know this man. That is a fact. We are also friends. Not friends. We frequent the same places. [He turns from the audience in what might seem confusion—he’s thinking—then turns back toward it]
The baths, the whorehouses. You understand me.
[Now slowly] And Pelagius, they say he is a “heretic.” A troublemaker, from Britain, where they are born and bred—they’re still in revolt, against Rome! “Free will,” he insists. That is what these slaves carry? How is that? You are bound but free? His own people want to silence him. Even Augustine, the libertine, even Augustine hates him.
[ENTER stage left, Jerome, accompanied by MA’s Second Servant (Peter, we will meet him later) and Jerome’s own assistant.]
SERVANT: Master, I bring you Jerome, as per your invitation. Jerome, just that, sir, am I correct?
J: Yes, that is sufficient, that is my name, thank you. And you are Marcellinus Ammianus. I have read your histories, sir. You can go, my son. [Assistant leaves]
MA: There are 36 volumes.
J: I know, I have read them all.
MA: May I ask you why?
J: This world is a temptation, a whirl of desire where the intoxication of cruelty becomes the reason to live—but it’s not real. When I read your histories, I am transported. I am delivered to another place.
MA: What place is that?
J: Heaven, where we can rest, where I rest, where I’m free of your cruelties, where my people rest.
MA: How can you believe that? This world is all we have, and it is made from cruelty. It is what we do best. We are, in our own way, mere beasts.
J: No, you are wrong, I have hope, we have hope, my fellow Christians—
MA: Hope? Tell me what that means.
J: It means that we believe in a better world, another world. It comes after us, after life. Heaven. Where nobody works, nobody suffers, nobody even thinks because there’s no reason to. There are no puzzles to solve, no wars to fight.
M: You hope for that?
[ENTER, stage right, Augustineof Hippo, looking lost, no servant to deliver him, but he bounds into the room, his affect is that of a dancer who has wandered into a place with no music.]
A: Am I in the right place? I’m supposed to be meeting Marcellinus and Jerome. I got lost, it’s a big house. I, ah, let myself in.
MA: Welcome, Augustine. Did I pronounce that right? This is Jerome. You share a church, it seems.
A: I know Jerome. [They bow to each other, clearly at odds] Actually, I know his writings. Not this person. And Marcellinus, for God’s sake, I know you, we frequent the same wrong places. The baths, the whorehouses!
[INT. The three men stand stupidly facing each other, wondering what to do. Finally MA gestures to the couches, and they arrange themselves at a distance from each other, wondering what comes next.]
A: I want to know why we’re here—why you invited me. And him.
MA: I want to know something about your beliefs, this church, this thing you call Christianity.
A [leaping off the couch, turning away from both], Why? Why would you want to know? Ask this pathetic fool, he claims to. [He whirls around] I cannot say what “we” believe, us Christians, because I don’t even know what I believe from day to day.
MA: My world is dying. I look around and I see decay. I can smell it. Perhaps your world will replace mine. Look across the river, Augustine. Who is gathering there? Visigoths, Vandals, Huns, whatever you call them they’re savages. They are not Romans, and I can assure you that they are not Christians.
They are “Europeans”—barbarians. They will destroy what is left of our civilization.
[SCRIM rises on the back wall, we see squalid encampments of refugees from the North—those proverbial barbarians at the gate—and then the shots change quickly to bring us up to date: huddled masses, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Hoovervilles, post WW II camps in Europe, Palestinians in Lebanon,1982, Cubans, Syrians of today, Mexicans crossing the Rio Grande . . . ]
J: Barbarians all. Your world already has died, my lord, because we live in the end times, when the fires of hell will consume you, your flesh shall burn, and—
A: Oh, for God’s sake, Jerome, calm the fuck down, the man is asking a good question, and the world isn’t ending. Not just yet. Get a fucking grip on yourself.
J: You take the Lord’s name in vain.
A: We’re guests here, Jerome. And aren’t you the man who writes an advice column for rich ladies who want to get to heaven? Lighten up.
MA: He does what?
A: You know this about him. He tells noble women how to abstain from sex, and give their fancy clothes away, so they feel safe when they die.
MA: [Turning, ceremoniously, to Jerome] I thought you were the “theologian,” the man who explains this God of yours.
J: I am, my lord, I have translated the Gospels. But part of my task, in Rome, is to tell women still freighted with their jewels and their luxuries and their voluptuous bodies—my mission is to tell them how to leave these things behind.
MA: I have read your translations, Jerome. But why would your clients, shall we call them, why would they want to leave these things behind?
A: Good question.
J: You are still a libertine, Augustine, you have fornicated with every citizen of Rome by now . . . so you are not a legitimate party to this conversation. Also, you have no Greek, you are still a provincial. I am a man of God, and I will persuade this pagan.
MA: Pagan? I’ve lived here all my life, except for the years in Gaul. And my youth. I’m not a peasant, Jerome. I’m a Roman citizen.
A: You won’t persuade him, Jerome, and now that I think about it, there are plenty of people in this town I haven’t fucked.
J: I will persuade him—
MA: No, you will not, that is not why you are here. You are here because I want to know how you believe, why you believe. I’m serious, by now. This Jesus, this man, he’s the pagan, the peasant. How can you worship a fool, a carpenter, a man who would not fight, a man who turns his cheek to be struck again?
J: He waits for us, in another world, the next life, the place he has prepared for us. We will join him there.
MA: Thank you, this is precisely what I don’t understand. How do you believe in that?
A: I don’t understand, either, Jerome. And I gotta say, I don’t believe in this place, this heaven, the next life, whatever you call it. Where do you get that shit?
J: From the Gospels, Augustine, from the book, surely you know it even without Greek, you are a bishop of this church—
A: That’s pending. My church and yours aren’t the same, Jerome. But look, I want to listen to Marcellinus now, he’s got us pegged as believers in something, and I want to know what he thinks it is—what “we” are, us Christians.
MA: Well. I will tell you what I believe. What I know. It’s not—it’s not easy, to say these things, what you believe, what you know. When did we start thinking we could speak our minds this way? When did you?
A: Just now. Nobody thought we had minds until now. Not until Jesus said so. [He looks at Jerome] Not until Peter denied him, three times. That’s the story told in the Gospels, right, Jerome? Peter the nobody, the fisherman, suddenly he’s the man who decides the fate of the world, he’s the man who sends the son of God to his death. That’s the story, right, Jerome?
[Jerome stands and walks away]
MA: Your minds, you mean? Nobody thought you had them. I suppose that is true. [He pauses] Jesus said so? But you are well born, Augustine, I met your father. [He looks confused] All right, I will confess, like you did. I will tell you what I believe, as a former commander of a legion, as a writer of histories. [He looks at Jerome] As a citizen of Rome.
[SCRIM rises on back wall, depicting epic battles, phalanxes, as MA becomes a quiet voiceover. As he speaks, A and J become still, they pay attention to the man, and then they realize his words are enacted on the screen behind them, and so, with the rest of the audience, they turn to the back wall, they walk to STAGE left and right.]
MA: I was twelve years old when I joined. “Joined,” not really. I was conscripted. From the provinces. Calabria. I loved all of it—I was thrilled to be taken from my parents, they were illiterate, miserable peasants, not tax collectors. They got paid, for me. I did, too. I got paid, for my services. I was not well born.
What I learned in the legions is very simple. This world is unspeakably cruel, and ugly. Violent. You get used to it, or you die. You’re strong, or you’re weak. Like I said, you live or you die.
But you can be noble, even if you weren’t born that way. I did, I became a citizen, a commander of a Roman legion. And I write the histories that way. “Noble.” What does that mean? It means you know the world for what it is, you accept it, it’s cruel, and ugly, it’s violent, but you don’t let that change your mind, you do your duty, you carry on, and you know that nothing you do will change anything—except the way the next man dies.
You can be merciful or not, but he’s just one man, and the rest of them, the people as you call them, your people, these masses who seethe, like snakes, you treat them like animals because that’s what they are. You kill them, you crush them, they’re insects.
A: They’re not animals. We’re not animals.
MA: Now you say ‘we.’
A: Yes, because I’m one of them, I’m equipped with a soul and God knows me as your equal and the equal of all others. I’m not any better than them, but I’m not an animal unless you are.
J: Augustine, please, Marcellinus is right, you are well born.
A: Fuck you, Jerome, and now that I think of it, I haven’t fucked you.
J: Marcellinus has a point, he’s trying to tell his story.
MA: I’m done. I’ve told my story. I’ll say this. Why do you believe in these, these “people”? They’re slaves, they’re whores. Like I said, they’re snakes, they act, they don’t think. You read, and you write. You are not like them. Why do you believe in them?
And why do they believe in what you tell them about this peasant and his heaven? Is it your magic? It can’t be your words.
J: I believe in God. I have no faith in these people, in this world. How could I? They have souls, but they’re buried in bodies trapped by sin, lust, desire. They already burn in Hell. It is the next life that matters.
MA: Their next life? Yours?
A: Fuck you both. That’s not a proposition, you’re both fools. You don’t understand the first thing about Christianity. It is the word made flesh, Marcellinus, the word of God brought down to earth, in the body of this man, Jesus.
MA: What can that mean. Augustine, the word made flesh? Your God is a man? Don’t answer, not yet.
[SCRIM rises again, we’re watching Mexicans cross the Rio Grande]
I haven’t told the whole story. I became a commander of a legion in Gaul. I was a peasant from Calabria, no manners, no languages. Then I was a grown man leading thousands into battle, hardened conscripts who would do anything I told them to. One day, it was a normal day’s march, we came upon a tribe, a family, there were maybe fifteen or twenty of them, crossing a river, and I gave the order, I said, slaughter these barbarians, make this river foam with blood. And they did, it didn’t take very long. I watched the bodies bobbing in the current. When it was done, I smiled and I commended my men.
I ask you, why do I now feel regret about this order? That is why you are here, in my home. Does your God have an answer? Can you speak for him, to me? Have I “sinned,” is that how you say it? Can I worry myself in this way? I admit, I don’t have the words I need.
A: But you do have words. You quote Virgil, that river foaming with blood—it’s his Rome that is now falling. Maybe his language won’t serve your purpose, maybe nobody has the words he needs, not now, in these times. Maybe you still have the soul God gave you. I wouldn’t count on it, you could be a monster. This one, too [gestures toward Jerome], but he’ll never know it.
[Enter STAGE right, Pelagius]
P: I hope I’m not too late.
A: Oh, good Christ, what the fuck is he doing here, Marcellinus? This is a man who believes he’s a God. This is the man who believes in “free will.” We created the world, he says, so we can redeem it. He leaves no room for God, only men. There is no original sin, he says, nothing except the transgressions we acknowledge in this life. “Crimes” he calls them. As if we make ourselves.
P: I won’t be long, Augustine. No reason to be afraid of me. I’m just one man